By Evelyn Kobierecka
The beginning of the 20th century ushered in an era of technological development in Austin and with it the city’s first automobiles. A staple of today’s crowded roads, the car was a novelty then that would inspire fear, curiosity, awe, and passion in the community’s citizens. The newly built road connecting Hyde Park with the city of Austin, today known as the Speedway, was the perfect place for young and passionate drivers to experience their new interest. While the horses raced on Shipe’s track (the finest race track in the South), drivers tested their cars’ limits on the road nearby. These pioneers of a new mode of transportation would help Austinites come to accept and even love the horseless carriage.
The transition to the automobile in Austin would begin with Reinhold Haschke. The owner of the first automobile that appeared in Austin, Reinhold could be seen driving through town as early as August 8, 1901. The exact date when he bought his first automobile is unfortunately unknown, but this photo (C11383) shows Reinhold proudly posing with his family in the car, an Oldsmobile, in front of the Capitol on August 8, 1901. The well-known automobile enthusiast became an agent for Olds Motor Works in Austin. (CO0729)
The horseless carriages first driven around by Reinhold and increasing numbers of other Austinites were a curiosity but also a pest to citizens. “It was bad enough to have to run for your life when those bicycles for two came whizzing past - but those horseless buggys! This four-wheel terror –inspiring object. They’re more than a body can endure.” Feodor G. Haschke, Reinhold’s own son, recalled during an interview for the Austin American in 1937, “There weren’t any roads to speak of then, and my father used to strike out across the country in his automobile, an Oldsmobile, leaving people staring for blocks around. Every horse and mule in the country would begin shying when that automobile came within a 100 yards of them”
Efforts to corral the growing number of drivers led to the creation of auto-specific laws for their vehicles. Automobile regulations law went into effect on July 12, 1907 and included a required registration of each “machine” at the cost of 50 cents apiece. “The law requires that each machine carry the number given it by the county clerk in the order that it is registered, therefore the old numbers having been selected at will, must be abandoned…” Drivers failing to observe the new law will be presented to the next grand jury. As the grand jury in Travis County is usually made up largely of farmers, who seem to have a natural antipathy to automobiles, the owners of the machines may expect to receive little consideration at their hands.” The thinly veiled threat served notice to automobile owners, who up to this point had operated with little oversight, that the fun and excitement of the car’s novelty had worn off and the dangers it presented were going to be put in check. Few stories leading up to this point illustrate the machine’s dual nature, its novelty and inherent danger, as well as that of the experience of two of Austin’s most famous citizens, Elisabet Ney and Col. Monroe Martin Shipe. A story the newspapers properly called a “serio-ridiculous catastrophe” at the time. It has since grown to that of legend with additional details added over time to an already astounding event.
It was a beautiful summer day in 1902 when this memorable event took place, during a picnic party at the “Formosa” in Hyde Park, the art studio of Elisabet Ney. A brilliant and eccentric sculptor, Elisabet often hosted artists, charming young ladies, and neighbors at her home seating them around a table outside her home. The events of this particular afternoon become a favorite anecdote to entertain her respectable guests at parties of the future. Her well known neighbor, Col. Monroe Martin Shipe, had appeared in his brand new automobile. It is worth pointing out, that at the time, it was one of only a few cars in the whole of Texas. Showing off his new car, Shipe circled and drove around the excited female audience until Miss Ney invited him and his “steamer” to join them for lunch at their picnic table. Col. Shipe instead suggested a driving demonstration for the entertainment of the ladies. To the delight of the guests, 70-year-old Miss Ney agreed to take a part in his show.
Unfortunately the show would not go as Shipe planned as the already overheated car began to behave bizarrely and led Mr. Shipe to nearly park his vehicle in the lake. Miss Ney laughed away his tumbled apologies and approached slowly. Not discouraged she waited to be seated only to discover that “It would not start!” The Colonel explained his mistake away saying “In my excitement, I probably forgot to turn off the heat when I jumped out!” The steam had been left on and the brake off, the car jolted forward abruptly, wavered uncertainly between creek and table Through the air flew shattered glass, china, and table; all to an accompaniment of feminine squeals and Mr. Shipe’s own muttered remarks. His face was very red over his fiasco.” Fortunately details of the day’s events are to be found in an interview with Mr. Shipe from an old newspaper. According to his own recollection is the following conversation:
Miss Ney: “Do you think it is safe, Mr. Shipe?”
Mr. Shipe: “Perfectly safe - I lied. On the straight-away, I wanted to show style and speed. By turning on more heat, I did both for a while. Isn’t that glorious, Miss Ney? “
Miss Ney: “Yes, in some ways. – The sculptress replied – But don’t you think it is rather warm, Mr. Shipe?
Mr. Shipe: “No, that’s just the weather – I lied again. Our joy was short lived. Infernal thing stopped. I looked down under the seat. The flame in the machine was twice as high as it should have been and as hot as hell below. Get out Miss Ney, and run like hell! – I yelled!”
Miss Ney: “Why, Mr. Shipe, aren’t we going to ride anymore? – she inquired mildly.”
Mr. Shipe: I became absolutely incoherent with fear and anxiety. – No! Damn it! And if you don’t get quick, we’ll both blow up with this machine! Jump for your life!” – Miss Ney jumped; we ran!
“We walked back home and have lived happily ever since that car ride which cost me a hundred dollars per mile.” The brand new Steamer, which Mr. Shipe destroyed during the short run in Hyde Park, cost around $850. Later, it turned out that all 138 boiler tubes had burned out preventing an explosion and saving this story from becoming truly catastrophic, leaving it instead in the realm of the “serio-ridiculous”.